For the five years since the EU referendum result, there has ben an ever-increasing drum-beat of good news emanating from Downing Street and its environs in the shape of interviews, press releases, statements to the House and articles in loyal publications from the Telegraph to the Spectator. The invariable theme is how much better Britain is now doing—whether in trade opportunities, diplomatic standing, or generally “punching above our weight” as a country.
All this was achieved while fighting the Covid virus by rolling out a ‘world-beating” vaccine programme, at the same time the “levelling up” agenda blew great gaps in the “Red Wall” of Labour seats across Northern England. Such success was binding Scotland ever closer in the union, in contrast to Wales and Ulster, neither of whom were showing the least inclination towards leaving.
To Tory faithful—amd a goodly number who had never voted Tory before—this was soothing reassurance in difficult times. Brexit had bred much uncertainty, adding to the strain and constraints of life under lockdown. But Boris Johnson’s blonde mop top bounced with irrepressible vision of Churchillian sunlit uplands we would all inhabit.
Unfortunately, too many of these rosy projections—from “pandemic over by Christmas” to “oven-ready” solutions to social care turned out to be founded on groundless optimism. Only a weak parliamentary opposition allowed the UK government to posit a stream of spurious assertions to reassure business and punters alike through a pliant media.
This was exacerbated by a virtual blackout of any comparisons with abroad—either in dealing with Covid or sustaining the economy. The mantra was:
“Brexit is finally letting Britain stand tall, without bureaucratic interference from Brussels. It would only be a matter of time before the UK regained its rightful leading place in the world, basking in the special relationship we always had with the USA.”
While visiting the UN in New York, Boris took credit for America easing 18 months of travel restrictions for Britons the country and asserted his government were clearly ahead in creating jobs and prosperity because “the OECD have projected that Britain now has the fastest GDP growth rate for this year in the G7”.
This correct but, like most Johnsonian pronouncements, misleading.
How so, if this is factually correct? Well, during the worst of the pandemic, government statements, via a pliant media, carried the story that the UK was dealing with Covid better than anyone. That Korea, Singapore, New Zealand and many other places suffered few cases and far fewer deaths, was under-reported. The UK did hear of Italy’s terrible outbreak at the start and how slow vaccine roll-out was in the EU. But when the EU performance overtook the UK, reporting went dark.
Now, in the run-up to COP-26, the focus has moved to economic recovery. To hear the UK government tell it, nobody is recovering better than Britain. Looking at OECD projections for this year only appears to validate this (Table 1).
That might look conclusive. But haud oan jist a wee mnnit: isn’t this view rather narrow, taking in just one year? And where are China, Russia and India, not to mention a host of dynamic Asian tigers? Looking at full OECD stats might not change relative order, but it does put world ranking in perspective, as shown in Table 2.
Britain is doing fairly well in fifth place. China and Spain both have higher projected growth than the UK. But neither are G7 members. More importantly, this is just a one year snapshot; taken out of context. Looking back to the Brexit decision, when Britain started to plan its unimpeded future should show the growth potential beginning, Even with recession in economies caused by Covid, if Britain truly achieved a better response than elsewhere, this should show up as less of a ‘hit’ to UK prosperity. Comparisons over the five years to date should show how well economies had been managed through these difficult times. OECD data, ranged by change over that time are shown in Table 3.
That paints a poorer picture of UK economic achievement by this present Conservative government. But it gets worse. Their insistence that Britain would prosper if freed from the shackles of the EU does not apply to parts of the UK. Indeed they are at pains to stress benefits to Scotland staying in a union with England and painted a picture of dire economic consequences, were it to leave. Scotland often compares itself to nearby countries of similar size enjoying close ties to Europe and comes to a much different conclusion. Who is right?.
Table 4 replaces other G7 members with such nearby countries, again ranking by GDP growth over the same five years as above in Table 3.
Here, the UK clearly comes of worst of all, for three reasons:
- Sluggish growth for three years after the Brexit decision—UK economy was not at the races even before Covid hit.
- Larger-than-anyone-expected drop in UK GDP, due to poorer and more erratic manner of Covid lockdowns
- Rebound growth this year comparable to others, but due to having lost so much ground in the first place.
By making a more expansive discussion of OECD statistics, as illustrated above, it is clear to see why the present UK government would do all it can to suppress detailed comparisons with other countries—whether G7 members or even small neighbours. Gullible Britain is buying false goods from a government keener on offering obfuscation than serious progress reports
But the day of reckoning cannot be far off. Exports and imports are both down, due to much increased red tape. The only trade deals struck replace those we had as part of the EU. Far from being dynamic, UK post-Brexit performance has been sluggish, making us the worst in the developed world.
Which perhaps explains why Boris Johnson has been “economic with the veracity”.